1990s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

Read this essay here or listen to it on the Film Freedonia podcast

…and then there was Tarantino.

Not many movies can lay claim to rewiring the zeitgeist. But Quentin Tarantino’s first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (1994), mapped a major continent of early 1990s cinema. Tarantino’s trumpet first blew at the Sundance Film Festival and culminated at Cannes. The one-time video store know-it-all turned movie world wannabe had made one attempt at filmmaking, My Best Friend’s Birthday, in the late 1980s, but it never saw release because of a severely damaged last reel. When he emerged properly with Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino suddenly became a pop cultural lightning rod, as most everyone who was young and hungry for hard-edged cinema and other permutations of alternative culture in the early 1990s latched onto Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction with fierce and personal fervour. Suddenly every film school student and their dog was making films laced with grungy violence, rapid-fire dialogue, and movie referencing, and a new breed of creator impresario began to emerge. If Jim Jarmusch had staked out the turf for the modern indie film mode and Steven Soderbergh provided the fanfare, Tarantino gave it an adrenalin shot. It was hardly as if Hollywood wasn’t making gritty, violent, smart-aleck thrillers at the time, not with the likes of Die Hard (1988) and Lethal Weapon (1987) recent memories, and Tarantino emerged in the midst of a revival of film noir laced with retro flavour that kicked off several years earlier.
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But there was of course much more to the Tarantino phenomenon than mere revivalism or swagger. Tarantino’s arrival marked the official dawn of self-conscious postmodernism in Hollywood cinema, replete with fancy-pants notions like intertextuality and death-of-the-author recontextualisation, as well as a non-linear approach to screen narrative of a kind mainstream cinema screens had scarcely deigned to employ since the early 1970s. The ‘90s indie movie craze seems like something of a lost idyll now, particularly since the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, who fostered much of the movement in large part on the back of Tarantino’s success for the then-respected Miramax Films. Several of Tarantino’s major rivals in the ranks of those often cited as today’s most important American filmmakers, including Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and Wes Anderson, ran with aspects of Tarantino’s example to leverage their own beginnings, with acts of calculatedly ironic nostalgia and pop culture riffing, whilst many of his talented, more earnest contemporaries fell away.
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Tarantino was hardly the first filmmaker to erect his movies in part as Parthenons dedicated to the movie gods. The French New Wave and the ‘70s Movie Brats had already done the same thing. The open secret about classic Hollywood filmmaking was that the vast bulk of movies were remakes and remixes of others. Take the way an esteemed classic like Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939) leans on a plot quote from one of its screenwriter Jules Furthman’s earlier films, China Seas (1935), whilst Hawks himself happily ripped himself off many times. But Tarantino set about drawing the eye to his, the quotation marks all but neon-lit, his carefully chosen musical cues and references framed with such totemic inference it seemed as if some Ennio Morricone music cue had dragged him out of some deep emotional crisis sometime during his days in the video store. For Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s touchstones, including Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987), Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), weren’t just evident but flaunted. But there was still something bizarre and thrilling about this new cinematic voice regardless, one that remains difficult to pin down after a quarter-century of familiarity and endless imitation, relating to how, despite his films’ magpie’s-nest compositing, Tarantino’s touch proved unique.
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The opening scene of Reservoir Dogs still illustrates that touch in all its unruly, arresting confidence. A group of eight men, all dressed in sharp black suits, seated around a table in a diner, gabbling on as they finish off breakfast and prepare for a day’s work: Mr White (Harvey Keitel), Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr Blue (Eddie Bunker), Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr Orange (Tim Roth), Mr Brown (Tarantino), Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney), and his son ‘Nice Guy’ Eddie (Chris Penn). The blankness of identification and dress is in aid of criminal enterprise, as in The Taking of Pelham 123, but has another, more unusual dimension. Here are eight characters well and truly found by their author, out to prove their vitality in the face of an itchy delete button. Dialogue comes on as a frenetic stew of character definition, pop culture theory and excavation, and socio-political argument, good humour and fraternity, laced with macho showmanship and signals of asocial reflexes and simmering aggression. Where a more classical noir film would use such a scene to make a distinct point about the characters as social animals, Tarantino engages them as both creations in a movie and of a movie: there is no longer a sharp divide between observant diagnosis and analysis of generic function. Hollywood had dedicated itself assiduously to trying to stay with it since the late 1960s, but Tarantino’s arrival suddenly declared the arrival of a hip culture happy in sifting through the detritus of mass-produced entertainment.
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Tarantino made sure the audience knew who he was by casting himself as Brown, who delivers his memorable analysis of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” for the edification of his fellows in identifying its covert theme as one of feminine sexual liberation confronted by new experience in encountering a prick colossal enough to cause her pain again. Hell, some might argue that’s a fitting metaphor for Tarantino’s entire relationship with his viewing audience. More cogently, the notion that all entertainment has subtext and can be interrogated until it takes on new form was hardly novel in 1992, but Tarantino found a way here not just to make his audience aware of it but to make it an actual dramatic value. Tarantino was offering American genre film’s revenge on all those smart-aleck New Wavers who collected Hollywood cinematic tropes in their deconstructive tales of Parisian losers. And yet at the same time he was subjecting the genre movie to another perversion, dragging it into the intimate conversational world of indie film. Tarantino disposed of any worry that a film image could sustain a multiplicity of reference points – that any moment could be at once a movie quote, a plot point, a proper dramatic idea, and a meta joke. The dialogue immediately betrays ardour for the twists of American tough guy argot, a tradition going back to the likes of Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner. Now the lexicon runs the gamut between frat boy attitude – “This is the world’s smallest violin playing just for the waitresses” – to Muhammad Ali – “You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologise.”
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The characters who utter these two lines, White and Pink, define themselves immediately by these different cultural lexicons, by generations and by ideals of wit. The amicable breakfast becomes charged with actual tension and disagreement as Pink refuses to contribute to the tip for the waitress, citing personal scruples: “I don’t tip.” White’s sensibility counters Pink’s cynical distaste for being expected to operate according to a social nicety and cough up a dollar. The dynamic the two characters will enact in the oncoming drama is stated, in the clash between White’s empathy and Pink’s suspiciousness, laced with cultural inference. Pink makes excellent points about the arbitrariness and unfairness of rewarding some workers over others in a mostly, thoroughly Darwinian capitalist system. White has the vote of audience sympathy in observing unfairness doesn’t preclude the necessity of the gesture for those benefitting from it regardless. Joe’s gruff decisiveness ends the conversation with the firmness of old-school patriarchy: the rights and wrongs of a social expectation don’t matter nearly so much as the fulfilment of it for its own sake, to maintain an equilibrium which allows them all to operate. This vignette, droll and incisive as incidental characterisation and a dissection of socio-political attitude, also anticipates the crew’s borderline pathetic need for Joe to turn up and play decisive daddy. But we’re also on the countdown towards the moment when the gun will be aimed at Joe, and down daddy goes.
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The opening titles sequence helped cement the film’s mystique. Tarantino individually identifies his actors as an ensemble of handpicked pros, a description that also encompasses the parts they play, strutting in slow motion through the blandest of conceivable LA locales, the George Baker Selection’s jaunty, jangly “Little Green Bag” on the soundtrack. Tarantino’s ironic approach to movie scoring, using upbeat, retro songs and movie score extracts from disreputable wings of pop culture to contrast moments of savage violence and sanguine cool, is now so familiar a movie strategy as to be a cliché, but at the time the greater part of its impact lay in a similar quality to grunge rock’s arrival in pop music: it was a complete rejection of the slick pretences of ‘80s film styles. His visual method, whilst hardly antiquated, similarly cut across the grain of what film style had largely been in the previous decade, instead somehow managing to shoot the interior of the warehouse where most of the tale unfolds as if it’s a wealth of space out of a Western, the physical attitudes of his actors allowed to hold the weight of the compositions just as their mouths carry the weight of the dialogue.
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The violent undercurrent of the opening scene’s jocularity – “I changed my mind, shoot this piece of shit.” – is fully exposed after the title sequence. Perhaps an hour or so later or even less, White is now found driving a car with Orange a bloody mess on the backseat, shot in the belly during the getaway from an armed robbery of a diamond merchant’s building. An incidental detail here proves endlessly consequential, as Orange calls White by his real name, Larry. White’s sense of friendly responsibility for the belly-shot young team member becomes a point of honour overriding White’s other tribal responsibilities. Tarantino obviously understood one essential aspect of classical tragedy: the spiral into all-consuming calamity is not just caused by clashes of character but by a fatal inability to reconcile colliding value systems. The white criminal underclass the crew represents is expertly observed in a way that highlights their tribal behaviour, whilst many of his subsequent films would deal with the interlocution of tribes. They’re loaned a crisp, professionalised glamour by their black-and-white attire, which they certainly wouldn’t possess if they were dressed like telephone repairmen or the like; if Reservoir Dogs is ultimately a tale of faking it ‘til you make it, a legend of show business expressed through crime flick drag, Tarantino reverses the traffic just far enough to lend his cadre of hoods the aura of movie stars.
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Ironic perhaps, given that Reservoir Dogs put together what might have been the best ensemble of actors for a crime movie since The Maltese Falcon (1941). Old pros Keitel and Tierney matched by squirrelly young talents who had gained notice in an odd sprawl of ‘80s movies, as well as crime novelist Bunker with his laidback aura of authenticity, and Tarantino himself, his young, smooth-cheeked visage resembling a pre-transformation portrait of the Joker found in the three-tone prints of old Batman comic books. Keitel helped get the film made, along with another hero from the American New Wave, Monte Hellman. Keitel’s presence linked Reservoir Dogs with Martin Scorsese’s equally showy, gritty early works, whilst Tierney, an actor whose genuine off-screen ferocity and bullishness had foiled his career and was still intimidating Tarantino during the shoot, gave a palpable connection to the days of classic noir. Hellman might well have felt a shock of recognition in the kinship between Tarantino’s project and his takes on the Western, The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind (both 1966), which similarly subjected genre canards to a deconstructive, vaguely existential whim.
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Tarantino had consciously written a film that could be executed on the smallest budget possible, so the bulk of the movie unfolds in a warehouse somewhere in the LA hinterland, Joe’s base of operations for the heist and rendezvous for the crew. Largely thanks to Keitel’s presence the budget proved big enough to allow punchy episodes of chase and gunplay, in flashback to Pink, White, and Orange’s escapes from pursuing cops, although the actual heist remains only reported in the dialogue. The story, as it proceeds from there, is exceptionally simple, even as the connections and suggestions ripple far. Brown and Blue are dead; Pink, White, Orange, and Blonde make it to the warehouse, although Orange soon passes out. Pink thinks the heist was a disaster because the crew were set up by an informer in their ranks. White is sceptical, and holds Blonde more responsible for unleashing a bloodbath. Blonde has taken a cop, Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) captive, and the three men beat him. When Pink and White depart to find the stolen diamonds Pink stashed, Blonde goes much further in cutting off Nash’s ear and planning to set him on fire, but he’s shot dead by the revived Orange, who actually is the informant, and explains that although the warehouse is being watched by police, none will come until Joe shows up. When Joe and Eddie arrive, Eddie kills Nash, and disbelieves Orange’s hastily concocted story that Blonde was planning to rip them off, whilst Joe is now sure Orange is the rat. White shoots Joe and Eddie rather than let them kill his friend, but is mortally wounded himself by Eddie.
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Along the way Tarantino pauses to relate how the various members of the crew were drawn together, with White and Blonde clearly old pals of the Cabot clan and sometime employees, particularly Blonde, real name Vic Vega, who just got through a stint in prison after refusing to turn stoolie on the Cabots when he was arrested in a locale filled with their stolen merchandise. Orange is seen going through a kind of performative boot camp to master the streetwise act required to fool the genuine criminals. The authentic members of the crew can be taken as lampoons of up-by-the-bootstraps capitalism, proud of their know-how and professional ethos and dismissive of concerns that get between them and fulfilment. Notably, Joe and Eddie have names and identity as employers the others cannot afford, as captains of their little industry. Joe’s office, with its wood panelled walls and elephant tusks and maps of Venice on the wall, is a cheerfully vulgar seat of power as signified by eras – tribal, medieval, and Victorian. Pink’s sarcastic commentary – “It would appear that waitresses are just one of the many groups the government fucks in the ass on a regularly basis” – makes a play of seeming rudely sympathetic but is actually shorn of class feeling and filled instead with yuppie arrogance, the looking-out-for-number-one philosophy at a zenith. This is expressed in many ways throughout the narrative, even by White who declares that, “The choice between doing ten years and taking out some stupid motherfucker ain’t no choice at all.”
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White is however genuinely shocked and vehement over Blonde’s cold and exacting execution of bystanders and staff in the merchant’s: the rogue psychopath is as much odd man out in the company of professional criminals as the rat, because his purposes have no connection to any rational aim of business. And yet it becomes clear Blonde’s brutality is rooted in the same deep hatred for the forces of justice. The flashback depicting his meeting with Joe and Eddie commences with a joshing session as Eddie gleefully provokes Blonde by suggesting he’s turned queer and black after being raped by black men in prison. This results in the two men wrestling on the office floor, as if they’re ten-year-olds. Blonde’s cobra-like gaze could harbour genuine rage or just a sociopath’s indifference, and possibly Blonde has become a machine for victimising the world in response to the way he feels like he’s been victimised. Tarantino here was taking up an aspect of the gangster film following on from The Godfather films, as this genre depends to a large part on the viewer’s identification with the most palatable choice amongst bastards. White, by comparison, seems comparatively upright, sticking up for friends and operating according to his instincts and experience. The flashback to his and Orange’s flight from the cops reaches its punchline as it’s revealed Orange was shot by an armed woman whose car they try to hijack, and he shot her dead in reflexive response. White’s conviction Orangie is okay is then based not just in guilt or amity, but what he experienced, and what he’s afraid of, knowing full well it could be him slowly bleeding to death.
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The surface interchangeableness of the crew is then steadily contradicted, but they mostly share a very similar identity as white, plebeian criminals, members of the tribe (there might even be a sneaky joke about that in regards to their dress, meant to evoke Jewish diamond buyers) who maintain strict internecine codes and forms of recognition, marked out by brusque contempt for non-members, including of course gross racism. They’re also members of pop cultural camps, however, delighting in yardsticks of cool, toughness, and erotic appeal, many of which cut across traditional borders of social identity, as well as old-fashioned notions of dramatic integrity. White confirms both his age and his ideal when he quotes Muhammad Ali even as he muses contemptuously on the black men he’s known. Orange clearly loves Silver Surfer. They’re all hot for Honey West and Pam Grier characters. Most old-school screenwriters and directors would have portrayed these characters as ignorant on this level, because their terms of reference would have been their own working class parents or friends. Jean-Luc Godard was obsessed with defining the no-man’s-land between his idea of real life and the art forms that obsessed him. Tarantino saw no such space, not anymore: the lens of pop culture is how most people experience the world now, just as they once absorbed national or religious folklores to situate their identities and process emotional experience. And so “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia” is discussed with Talmudic intensity and debates about the actors of obscure TV shows sit cheek by jowl with plotting a robbery and personal ruminations on sex and race.
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Superficially, Reservoir Dogs stands with Jackie Brown (1997) as Tarantino’s most quotidian, grounded work, and yet it’s flecked with nascent aspects of surrealism and absurdism. Tarantino’s gore-mongering scruffiness was already laced with distinct hints of hyperbole: the lake of blood that forms about Orange prefigures the outlandish bloodletting seen in the likes of the Kill Bill diptych (2003-4) and Django Unchained (2012). Connections form with Tarantino’s subsequent films – Blonde is the brother of Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega, White’s ex-lady has the same name as the heroine of True Romance (1993), hinting he could be the older, battle-scarred version of that film’s hero – suggesting a free-floating mythological world in the offing. Pulp Fiction would land as hard as it did in large part because it moved a step beyond Reservoir Dogs in simultaneous celebration and mockery of anatomisation of hipster subcultures and the iconography of a raised-by-TV generation, offering a fictional agora where S&M freaks, hippie dope dealers, beatnik assassins, blaxploitation heavies, bodypiercers, retro freaks, and the by-products of war and suburbia all meet and are diagrammed according to possible usefulness in terms of B-movie storylines. The use of barely-remembered classic rock ditties on the soundtrack, often deployed with a sarcastic invocation that relates to the on-screen drama in a fashion like Greek chorus gone funkalicious, is justified by the characters’ penchant for the radio show K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ‘70s. The show’s host is played by the deadpan ‘90s comedy hero Steven Wright, whose fillips of hype and commercialism – the way he pronounces “Behemoth” in an ad for a monster truck rally is an endless delight – feel like broadcasts from another planet.
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One of Tarantino’s less noted precursors was Jim McBride’s 1983 remake of Godard’s Breathless, which pulled off a similar feat in transplanting New Wave conceits out of the hypercultural climes of Paris to suburban Los Angeles. Perhaps the least analysed side of Tarantino is the ironic realist: particularly in his first three films, his work was deeply rooted in his feel for LA, his love for its sunstruck streets and the rhythms of its downtown conversations. The film’s deeply cynical contemplation of a criminal underworld as a stand-in for urban bohemianism and the artistic demimonde proved, despite not really focusing on such things, weirdly attuned to the mood of riotous dissent in LA at the time. Tarantino’s later work hinges much more on a dance between aesthetic posture and authentic emotion and experience, as in the Kill Bill films or Death Proof (2007), which moved onto another zone of tribal struggle, in their case concerning female protagonists, before his trilogy of historical incitement, Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight (2015), where the narrative centres around historical tribal wars rhymed to different modes of cinema. When Tarantino would to a very great extent remake Reservoir Dogs with The Hateful Eight, the core variance was that with the later film Tarantino would make each character a representative of a different tribe rather than a homogenous group with an odd man out.
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The impact of Tarantino’s directorial approach amounted not just to a scorecard of iconographic flourishes like sharp suits and old tunes. The clear-eyed cinematography Tarantino got from Andrzej Sekula, who would also shoot Pulp Fiction, spurned most of the stylistic reflexes of ‘80s action cinema, with few shallow focal plains and little diffused light or flashy filter work. Tarantino and Sekula instead made heavy use of wide-angle lenses to achieve a more igneous effect, epic even on a small scale. There was a touch of irony in the fact that Tony Scott, a doyen of the ‘80s style of action movie, took on Tarantino’s rewritten script for My Best Friend’s Birthday as the baroquely shot True Romance, which looked good but felt, by comparison, instantly dated, although the likes of Michael Bay would carry over something of that style. Reservoir Dogs wasn’t exactly a work of strict classicism however, and comes on with a visual language both muscular and skittish. Long static shots and standoffish camera placements redolent of Antonioni somehow manage to at once unfetter and trap the energy of his actors, alternated with camera gymnastics betraying the immediate influence of Scorsese and particularly Brian De Palma, as if taking the place of an unseen watching presence thrust in amidst the carnage.
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Reservoir Dogs also established Tarantino’s fondness for circumlocutory structuring, deployed less to evoke, as with filmmakers like Orson Welles or Alain Resnais, vagaries of time and memory, than to engage traditional narrative propulsion in a different fashion. The flashbacks do more than simply explain backstory, but set up each little act in the core drama, resituating expectations and tension. In this regard Tarantino revealed himself as one of the few filmmakers to properly understand the dynamic behind the flashback in Vertigo (1958) and use it as a means of changing the pitch of dramatic intensity. White’s vignette is one of slightly rueful friendliness and straightforward aims and desires. Blonde’s vignette explains his visceral hatred of cops and just about everyone else except for Joe and Eddie. Orange’s doesn’t simply inform us that he’s the interloper or how he got shot but why these two facts are both facets in an extended deed of method acting. Tarantino made no bones about the inherent theatricality of his approach. Many scenes in the warehouse feel like acting exercises. This makes sense, given that the insistent motif in the film is role-playing, and the lurking suggestion what we’re seeing is all a metaphor for Tarantino’s days as a sometime actor and general, would-be Hollywood player. The film quoting is something like the filmmaker’s equivalent of an actor trying out different costumes for different characters, busily donning and shedding guises in the hunt for one that will settle and sell.
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Perhaps the film’s most famous image, of Pink and White pointing guns at each-other in a moment of heated argument, is filmed intimately at first, engaged in the ferocity of the moment. But then Tarantino steps back, shooting them from a remove that strands the men in posturing absurdity, and draws the camera away a few paces to reveal Blonde standing watching them whilst lazily sipping on a milkshake. Blonde is audience, assessing the effectiveness of the performed machismo, and he quickly begins provoking White with his own perfect attitude of supine cool. “I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan,” Blonde comments, nailing down both his and White’s style hero and generic forebear. The chief tripwire of the plot seems to be Orange’s power over White in knowing his name, but this proves to have rather placed him as much in thrall to White. He accepts the rules of his appointed role to the point where he stands around looking anguished and not intervening as White ruthlessly blows away two fellow cops, before Orange shoots a woman and gets himself shot twice for the sake of their friendship. Once he’s wounded, all boundaries between life and pose vanish, and Orange becomes merely a desperate man and White the one trying to get him through it. Fake it ‘til you make it indeed. White’s comment to Joe, “You push that whole woman-man thing too long and it gets to you after a while,” betrays his unease with commitments advisable with his lifestyle, and also offers the slightest hint of homoerotic subtext to his attachment to Orange.
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The longest of the film’s flashbacks revolves around the division between life and art in a way that’s more overt than Tarantino would usually practice in his films. Orange, real name Freddy, wheedles his way into the bandit circle. He sets about mastering, at the behest of his handler Holdaway (Randy Brooks), an “amusing anecdote” for the purposes of furthering his cover. This part of the film might initially seem vaguely extraneous, but it is in truth the very essence of Reservoir Dogs and the mission statement for the rest of Tarantino’s career, as an exploration of the slippery boundaries between act and life, creation and deconstruction. The anecdote relates how Orange supposedly once sweated through a close encounter with cops and a drug sniffer dog in a railway station washroom whilst carrying a large quantity of weed. Holdaway tells him that you have to be “naturalistic, naturalistic as hell” to convince in undercover work. And so Orange’s journey mimics the processes of being an actor – meetings in diners, read-throughs, stagy rehearsals, and finally entering the zone of make-believe so intensely the narrative becomes a mini-movie into which Orange projects himself. The blend of Tarantino’s directing, Roth’s acting, Sekula’s shooting and Sally Menke’s editing is at its most ingenious here, as Orange’s anecdote jumps locales as he works his way through stages of conviction. Finally Orange delivers his highwire monologue before Joe, White, and Eddie, before he is finally glimpsed standing before the cops in his anecdote, recounting it to them.
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The crowning moment of the anecdote sees Orange jab the button on a hand dryer, momentarily drowning the cops’ conversation and drawing their annoyed gaze, including that of their barking dog, but it also seals his victory, both imagined and real: the riskiness of the gesture achieves a perfect simulacrum, and Orange has become so convincing he bends the language of cinematic reality itself. The most notorious portion of Reservoir Dogs, and its initial spur to fame, is the scene of Blonde’s torture of Nash. This scene seems the complete opposite in nature to Orange’s story, as a portrait of authentic and immediate evil. If Orange is the bullshit artist made good, Blonde is cold truth, providing his own soundtrack when he turns on the radio and tunes in for the ‘70s Scottish folk-rock band Steelers Wheel’s song “Stuck in the Middle With You,” with its spry, insidiously catchy tune and refrain of “please” offered as a cruelly deadpan mockery of the cries Nash can’t make with his mouth taped shut. Even here, we’re deep in a zone of performative zeal and competition, as Blonde proves he’s the one with show-stopping moves, the one who gives us what we really want. Blonde’s taunting little dance to the tune as he gets ready to attack Nash with a straight razor suggests he’s having a ball even as he’s nominally the one presenting his literally captive witness with the last word in audience involvement.
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But the most galvanising choice in this scene was to avert the camera’s gaze as Blonde hacks Nash’s ear off, camera again playing bystander who this time has finally found their tolerance limit. The avoidance of bloody pyrotechnics paradoxically makes the moment feel much nastier, partly because it subverts the rules of performance, intimate in refusing to countenance. Tarantino walks the viewer up to the very threshold of unbearable horror, as Blonde’s intention of setting Nash on fire is only avoided by the fusillade of bullets Orange fires at him. This was another superlative piece of sleight-of-hand on Tarantino’s part, as Orange has become virtually forgotten since passing out. Orange’s killing of Blonde feels like a heroic gesture, but it’s one that ultimately costs the lives of nearly everyone left in the crew: Eddie instantly undercuts it when he returns to the warehouse and shoots Nash dead. Much later in his career Tarantino would, in the scene of D’Artagnan’s death by mauling in Django Unchained, walk up to a similar threshold and then shove characters and audience over it. Perhaps it’s the provocateur’s lot to have to constantly ratchet their effects up, but the later film also revises the dynamic seen here with a notable consequence. Django’s self-control makes him in a way party to horror, but also enables his ultimate happy ending; his performance is a matter not just of his own life and death but also for his great love and by extension for all his tribe, where Orange remains to a certain extent a mere dilettante. The relatively green Nash proves to recognise Orange, who doesn’t remember him: his native tribe, that of the police, offers no succour. By breaking character, Orange has doomed himself.
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Except that the film’s very end offers Orange one last way to take his role to the limit, as multiple zones of identity and performance collapse in upon each-other. White’s defence of Orange obliges him threaten to Joe as the old warlord intends to shoot Orange; Eddie aims at White in retaliation, whilst Pink pleads for reason unheeded. Faithfulness works like gravity, drawing people to the most immediate orbit, and the logical end-point of all the macho posturing is reached as the three men gun each-other down, leaving only a shocked and bewildered Pink to look around a stage as littered with corpses as the last act of Hamlet. Pink skedaddles with the diamonds, although the faintly heard sounds from outside suggest he gets cornered and captured by the cops. Orange, now twice shot, confesses to the wounded, gasping, broken White that he’s a cop. By confessing to be a fake, he demands reality, the consequence of that revelation. White cradles his head like a baby and squeals in heartbreak, but seems to deliver the wished-for coup-de-grace, even in defiance of the police who burst in at the last moment and gun him down in turn. By one standard it’s the traditional end of a gangster movie, a portrayal of greed, violence, and treachery on a path to mutually assured destruction. But by another, it’s the ultimate deed of performance. If, as the old canard has it, the only true feat of greatness for an actor is to cross the line into madness, Orange manages the next best thing, to play an outlaw until you die like one.

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1960s, Historical, Horror/Eerie

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Director: Roger Corman

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By Roderick Heath

When you want to talk about Roger Corman, you have to take into account that there is at least three of him. The most famous is the low-budget film director and producer whose name became a by-word for cheap and tacky movies, building small empires from the stray audiences and industrial detritus of the movie business, and whose career has stretched from providing screen filler for drive-ins to VHS shelves to VOD. The second, the won who received a special Oscar, fostered the careers of dozens upon dozens of actors and filmmakers, some of whom went on to have major Hollywood careers, by giving them jobs in his low-rent domains, trusting young on-the-make talent in the same way that he, lucky in his time, got unexpected breaks and became a film director before he was 30.

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The third Roger Corman is perhaps the most controversial, insofar as many deny he exists, and yet has been acknowledged elsewhere ever since Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival: the important American filmmaker. Corman’s ingenious touch and wily acumen as a director, perpetually motivated by the most nakedly mercenary wonts and yet somehow always characterful and idiosyncratic, had been apparent since his early work like The Day the World Ended (1956), and his first work in the horror genre, if a rather jokey one, The Undead (1957). Those films were made at a time when Corman’s place on the lowest rung of Hollywood belied his status as one of the few filmmakers in town tackling the psychic underside of modernity via perfervid little fantasias designed to tap the tastes and wallets of young audiences. This he essayed through a brand of cinema that seemed, through its very sparse and straitened creativity, to approximate the mind-space of Elizabethan theatre: even something as magnificently absurd as The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1958) has a delightful quality to it reminiscent of a play put on by talented kids after raiding the old chests laden with forgotten potential props in the attic. Usually working with screenwriters Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna, Corman’s films, for all their diverting lacks in production values, often had rich conceptual cleverness and an impudent take on storytelling niceties that often legitimately strayed into the territory of the post-modern. Just as a crudely lettered sign could fill in for a forest in Shakespeare’s day, a man in a tatty monster suit could be the hinge for Corman’s films to become little fugues and bonsai myths.

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In 1960, Corman made a move up-market. American Releasing Corporation, the company run by B-movie specialists James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, had morphed into American International Pictures, thanks in part to Corman’s gift for penny-pinching and money-spinning, and their seizure of the nascent youth market. Corman sold them on the idea of making a more ambitious type of product to what they had so far done: to make a relatively classy horror movie in colour, to try and reach the same market Hammer Studios had recently uncovered. Needing a subject to go up against Hammer’s repertoire of Gothic literary sources, Corman chose as a subject a specifically American source of horror fare, one that was also, conveniently, in the public domain: Edgar Allan Poe. The first film he adapted from Poe, House of Usher, proved such a hit that AIP immediately became a dominant force in the new, wide-open post-studio era of exploitation cinema, and Corman made a slew of Poe adaptations in the next four years: Pit and the Pendulum and Premature Burial (both 1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (both 1963), and The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia (both 1964), as well as two films that fit thematically if not pedantically into the series, the famously, hastily assembled The Terror, and The Haunted Palace (both 1963), named for a Poe poem but actually the first film adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story.

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Corman turned from his usual writing team and commissioned a screenplay for House of Usher from well-regarded sci-fi writer Richard Matheson. Matheson was contributing scripts to Rod Serling’s epochal TV show “The Twilight Zone” at the time, and Corman also used scripts by another of the show’s writers, Charles Beaumont, for the Poe series. But the true key to the success of the series was gained when Corman obtained the services of Vincent Price, a stage and Hollywood actor who had a frustrating career in movies for fifteen years, usually playing smarmy upper-crust playboys or menacing Byronic types, until House of Wax (1953), one of the few major American horror films of the decade, had turned him at last into a niche star. Price started drifting towards becoming a full-time horror actor as the decade wore on but many of the films didn’t know what to do with him, for instance The Fly (1958) which cast him as straight man. Once he encountered Corman, all that changed. Corman offered him roles that stretched his gifts and played on his capacity to shift from avuncular to menacing on the drop of a hat, and offer facially and vocally expressive performances influenced by theatrical melodrama perfectly attuned to the stylised, expressionistic needs of Gothic horror. Price starred in all of the Poe films except for Premature Burial, which featured Ray Milland, lending his inimitably over-large style in cunningly pitched variations that confirmed his second career as a cult figure. In Pit and the Pendulum, the second of Corman’s Poe films, Price plays two parts which merge towards the end, conjoining those two poles of his personality.

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Pit and the Pendulum opens with a desolate and eerie vista traversed by a lonely coach, setting the film’s toey, tense mood in motion. Poe’s original story, one of the most brilliant examples of the writer’s gift for composing what seem like remembered nightmares recorded in lucid detail, was a tale of sadistic suffering anticipatory of Kafka and Orwell, set in a Spain where the terror of Inquisition becomes a cosmic force, and the hero is only rescued in the last few sentences by an avenging army. Corman’s budget couldn’t cope with that, so he and Matheson stuck close to the template that had worked on House of Usher, sticking with the Spanish setting and theme of the Inquisition but shifting the location to a remote castle and revisiting the gambit of an outsider, this case John Kerr’s invasive Englishman Francis Barnard, entering a family house dominated by an intense and morbid air of familial guilt. Worked into the story is a greatest hits-like collection of Poe themes like burial alive, personality possession, erotically-tinged guilt and melancholic obsession. Francis comes to Spain in search of facts about a woman, in this case his sister Elizabeth, who had married Spanish nobleman Nicholas Medina (Price), but has recently died in mysterious circumstances.

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Arriving on the blasted, Salvador Dali-esque shoreline where Medina’s castle teeters on the edge of a sonorously rolling sea, Francis bangs on the door and demands admittance with a haughty, bullish determination to learn why his sister died. He soon finds himself up against a thicket of confused explanations, with the mood of distrust heightened by Nicholas’ bleary sense of responsibility, and the sketchy details of Elizabeth’s demise which prove to have been partly covered up. Soon Francis pries from Nicholas, his sister Catherine (Luana Anders), and family physician Doctor Leon (Antony Carbone) the truth as they know it, that Elizabeth died from a heart attack, caused by her accidentally sealing herself into an iron maiden in the torture chamber conveniently located in the castle’s basement, which morbid allure had drawn her to: the chamber had been constructed by Nicholas’ father Sebastian, an infamous torture artist employed by the Inquisition.

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Unlike the mostly mood-driven House of Usher, however, Pit and the Pendulum develops an inwardly spiralling mystery with the classic Gaslight (1940) theme of machinations to drive a person mad for worldly gain. The characters try to solve strange portents infesting the castle, including signs that Elizabeth may well have risen from the grave, a possibility that touches Nicholas deeply. The trauma behind Nicholas’ quivering anxiety and specific fear of burial alive is rooted in an anecdote Catherine has to relay to Francis: Nicholas secretly witnessed Sebastian (also played by Price in flashback) luring their mother (Mary Menzies) and her lover, his brother Bartoleme (Charles Victor) into his torture chamber, where he bashed Bartoleme’s head in and tortured their mother before walling her up alive. Although Leon assures them that Elizabeth was quite dead, the mysterious sounds of her beloved harpsichord being played in the night, a whispering voice shocking the maid Maria (Lynette Bernay) whilst cleaning Elizabeth’s room, and Francis’ discovery of a network of secret passages, begin to suggest the true situation is stranger. Francis eventually theorises that Nicholas is creating the disturbances himself, because he’s mentally unbalanced and suffering dissociative fits. Acting on the possibility that Nicholas’ own belief that Elizabeth might still be alive or at least to satisfy Nicholas’ obsessive anxiety, the men break their way into the sealed crypt below to investigate. In her coffin, they find a gnarled and twisted body that does indeed seem to have died in screaming agony whilst sealed in alive.

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The blend of firmly geographical realism with an undertow of obsessively morbid style that steadily eats into the texture of the film until it breaks out in hallucinogenic blooms, exemplified by Pit and the Pendulum, became Corman’s specific touch. Amongst Corman’s Poe films, this one had probably the most evident, immediate impact on some of Corman’s rivals, particularly Italian brethren including Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda, from whom he in turn stole Steele: Freda remixed the plot of Pit and the Pendulum for L’Orribile Segreto del Dr Hichcock (1962). As Paul Leni and Tod Browning had done years before, Bava would accomplish so masterfully on Operazione Paura (1966) and John Carpenter would manage on Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982), Corman transforms environment and the absence of people and action into a dramatic element key for creating tension and mystery, as cinematographer Floyd Crosby’s camera restlessly probes the Medina castle in the night, the camera suggesting a lurking intelligence in spite of the absence of human presences, long before the eerie sounds of Elisabeth’s harpsichord begin to echo about the castle.

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Author Stephen King has said the moment of the discovery of Elizabeth’s entombed body marked the start of a trend towards ever-more-intense shock-effect horror in the genre, and it is arguable that the film provides the bridge between the lip-smacking sadism of The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and the eventual sub-genre based around torture as source of horror that flowered regrettably in the last decade or so. Where Hammer had effectively drenched its horror films with Technicolor to paint them in illustrative verve that made them stand out at a time when the genre was usually too cheap to afford colour or still essaying mood through Expressionist lighting, Corman was the first filmmaker since Michael Curtiz’s work with two-colour Technicolor in the early ‘30s to really seize on the format as an expressive tool, carefully employing costuming and décor in commentary. In spite of the cramped budgets, Corman’s eye for talent snared him two collaborators with years of experience in studio cinema, Crosby and art director Daniel Haller. The palette they created for Pit and the Pendulum grips the actors in a world of musty browns and greys, the dust and dirt of the grave infesting the frames, except for carefully coordinated splashes of colour.

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Corman was fond of blurring the boundaries between distant past and future, and even dramatized the idea in Teenage Caveman (1958), as time eats itself, ouroboros-like. Even the land around the castle has been desiccated as thoroughly as by nuclear fallout, one way in which Corman manages to link the threat of desolation he had explored with real fascination in his scifi, with its nuclear age angst, with Poe’s timeless psychological realm. In a similar way, Les Baxter’s scoring, the most inventive of the composer’s work on the Poe series, utilises electronic sounds and strange, almost musique concrete effects throughout, throbbing and droning in weird, echoic manner, recalling the score of Forbidden Planet (1956) but with futurism replaced by atavistic dread. When Steele’s Elizabath finally appears, rising like a wraith from the shadows, she is nonetheless wrapped in brilliant white with blood-stained fingers, a perverse angel crawling her way out of the fetid psychological trap her husband’s obsessions inadvertently forced on her and which she has now turned into a weapon. Corman would get to work out this concept most fully in the colour codings of The Masque of the Red Death, where he gained Nicholas Roeg as a collaborator. It’s hard not to read Corman’s background as a trained engineer – a career he abandoned after two weeks – in the precision of his use of space and elements, as well as the on-time, on-budget ethic he stuck to as a filmmaker.

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The Poe series tends to take pre-eminence in serious appraisals of Corman’s oeuvre, understandable considering their higher budgets and concomitant, relative smoothness and vivacity, although they do lack to a certain extent the antic humour, self-reference and self-satire that define so many of Corman’s cheaper early films, which shone out particularly bright in the knowing burlesques on Poverty Row enterprise and minor entrepreneurial artistry in A Bucket of Blood (1959) and Little Shop of Horrors, the multi-genre send-up in Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), and his mini-epic of meta-humour, Rock All Night (1957). But the bare-boned, apocalyptic morality plays he was also good at – The Day the World Ended, Gunslinger (1956), The Last Woman on Earth (1961), The Intruder (aka Shame, 1962) – provided a basis for the conceptually hermetic, sparsely populated, intensely oneiric worlds he conjures in the Poe films. One of the most interesting aspects of Corman’s works lay in how, even in his cheapest films (indeed, sometimes particularly there), he was one of the few directors of his era who incorporated visual art as both an element in the films and as stylistic guide, in a fashion similar to how other filmmakers were leaning on Saul Bass to inject their work with the same veneer of stark, modernist quintessence. The pretences to classical integrity in the Poe series stymied his playfully deconstructive instincts his early films often displayed, but Corman compensated by turning the films in referential pieces, quoting Poe on screen during the films to provide literary bookends to his visualisations. The opening and closing credits depict seething colours, a simple effect rendered with paint running in oil, making everything in between some like the feverish product of a mad artist. Artworks that seem to contain the remnant personalities of their subjects becomes a recurring motif in Corman’s films, here manifesting first when Nicholas shows Francis portraits of his father and of Elizabeth, rendered in anachronistic styles, and later, in the waking-nightmare finale, ghoulishly stylised paintings of hooded monks glaring down at the tortured hero, turned into twisted, elongated icons with a faint of echo of Eisenstein’s perversion of medieval Russians into human illustrations in Ivan the Terrible (1945-57), breaking down the barriers between set, décor, costuming, and camera effect. Reality starts to melt on the edge of mortality as the paintings are doubly distorted by lens effects and screen-flooding colours.

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Corman’s later, brief shift into semi-experimental, psychedelic film with The Trip (1967) notably followed on from both the technique and themes he was exploring here and elsewhere in the series, presenting the mind unfettered experiencing past, present, and dream-state in a melange. Moreover, a theme that threads through much of Corman’s oeuvre, a portrait of the attempt to create as a process involving eternal frustrations and cruelty to both self and others, blithely portrayed in stuff like Rock All Night, A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors, but more seriously engaged repeatedly in the Poe films, The Trip, and elsewhere, here crystallises as Nicholas laments his incapacity to transcend through art in his attempts to capture Elizabeth’s face on canvas, and so, again like many of Corman’s antiheroes, recreates himself to cope. Corman’s noted admiration of Ingmar Bergman, again expressed more completely in Masque of the Red Death, feels most acute in this theme with similarly obsessed the Swedish master, if essayed in far more high-falutin’ ways. True to the intensely psychological understanding Corman and Matheson both shared in relation to Poe’s tales, they relentlessly link the dank, mysterious abodes beneath the castle with the fetid areas of the mind, the castle a mimetic map of that mind, and signal that in spite of Nicholas’ surface vulnerability he maintains a dangerous and obsessive link with his father’s world. When Francis first enters the dungeon, Nicholas appears suddenly from a closed door – a trick Corman repeats when Elisabeth bursts into the film – behind which the sounds of machinery working have startled Francis and Catherine: all Nicholas will say is that “machine needs constant repair.” Why on earth Nicholas needs such a machine we only learn in the climax.

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The deliberate, patient, neurotic tempo of Pit and the Pendulum tightens a spring that won’t release until the finale, but punctuated with brief outbursts of hysteria and intensely rhythmic fulcrums, including the sequence where the men break into Elizabeth’s tomb that sees the hacking pickaxes becoming time-keepers counting down to their own entrance into the tomb, and the later scene where Nicholas finds himself exploring hidden passages. He’s drawn on by the siren call of what sounds like his dead wife, the dazed and terrified man becoming steadily more distracted, at first cringing as he touches thick cobwebs and then stumbling through them without noticing. When Nicholas follows this labyrinth to the opened tomb and sees something climbing out of his wife’s coffin, Corman doesn’t shift the beat, but watches just as calmly as Nicholas retreats in panicky fear and finally collapses until Steele’s Elizabeth suddenly erupts from the shadows screaming his name, turning her husband, or her prey, into a scurrying animal and then catatonic cuckold. Nicholas survives however by going constructively mad, as it becomes clear that Leon and Elizabeth are lovers who have plotted to destroy Nicholas by driving him mad. Nicholas then arises, his own personality subsumed by his murderous, tyrannical father, closing the very circle of inevitably inheritance Nicholas had feared but also armouring him against evil.

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Price gives a quintessential example of his gift for oversized, expressive style, perhaps indeed one of his most florid, although his showiness, perhaps deliberately reminiscent of grand barnstorming melodrama actors as Tod Slaughter, disguises his skill. Price shifts between personas with consummate ease and provides the film with its dramatic nexus, telegraphing Nicholas’ quivering boy-man fear and anguish striated with fixation, his constant worry that he might inevitably inherit his father’s evil dooming him to just that. Next to him, everyone else except for Steele looks stolid and strained. Kerr, whose big claim to fame prior to this was appearing in Tea and Sympathy (1958), has the relatively thankless job of playing Francis, who mostly comes on as obnoxiously insensitive. But he’s effective enough as sounding board for Price’s spectacle, and plays the character with admirable chilliness that makes Francis seem, at least for the first two-thirds of the movie, to be something like its villain, relentlessly pounding on vulnerable and empathetic Nicholas’ fragile nature. Francis proves however to more a hapless interloper, in a vein that renders him intriguingly close in function and identity to the “final girl” as that figure would arrive in the ‘70s horror genre, as he loses all agency and undergoes terrible suffering and has to be saved by a woman and servant: here Corman and Matheson clearly signal something changing in the genre. Anders, who also appeared in Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide the same year, had a raw, slightly uncertain charm that suits her character, who retains innocence amidst the emotional wreckage that is her family legacy and has avoided her brother’s neurosis but certainly feel the weight of experience, staring blankly into her own imagined version of family horror as she narrates it to Francis.

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For horror fans the undoubted appeal of Pit and the Pendulum acting-wise lies in seeing Price and Steele together. That promise was partly hampered, as Steele had her speaking voice post-dubbed by another actress, because her regional English accent sounded oddly out place amidst the mid-Atlantic brogues everyone else in the cast adopted to play Spaniards. Nonetheless Steele’s physicality blazes for her few minutes on screen in her first major movie after being promoted to genre stardom by Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960), her remarkable face, the very image of the femme fatale capable of shifting between modes of porcelain doll-like beauty and utter evil, leering gleefully over Price’s prone form, sweetly mocking him with the litany of people who have betrayed him or sinned in his immediate life. Gloating pleasure turns abruptly to queasy fear as Nicholas starts laughing back at her, and grasps her as if the most intimate lover’s embrace as Elisabeth squirms fearfully in his arms before gagging her and shutting her in an iron maiden. Transformation via psychotic breakdown unleashes demonic sexuality as Nicholas/Sebastian gives Elisabeth a voracious kiss. This wonderful moment nails down the base erotic element in so much of the horror genre, the alternations of power within sexuality, the broken wall between desire and hatred, as well as the performative skill of the duo.

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Nicholas’ insanity next leads him to chase down Leon, who plunges to his death in a secret pit, and so Francis, who stumbles down into the dungeon in search of Nicholas and finds him now entirely subsumed by the personality of Sebastian: Nicholas knocks out Francis and substitutes him for Leon as stand-in for Bartoleme, and subjects him to Sebastian’s ultimate torture machine – the pendulum. Nicholas/Sebastian gloats over his tethered victim before setting the torture machine in motion and memorably welcomes Francis to his zone of nullification of reason, giving it names from a panoply of cultures and describing it as the ultimate metaphor for the state of human kind before setting the gears in laborious motion and the machine begins lowering the blade remorselessly towards Francis’ stomach. Price goes gleefully for the rafters here in one of his bravura shows of theatricality, but both he and the film also, finally reach the point of crisis they’ve been working to with sneaky skill, both filmmakers’ showmanship and torturer’s converging to offer a spectacle of torment that allows perfect summation of both the plot and the obsessions of the characters, from Nicholas’ torment/fascination to Francis’ obsession with knowing the whole truth and being given an intimate lesson in fate.

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The final action is entirely riveting, as Catherine and servant Maximillian (Patrick Westwood) break into the chamber: when finally they gain entrance, Maximillian battles Nicholas whilst Catherine tries to halt the pendulum, resulting in Nicholas falling to his death beside Leon and Francis only saved by the thinnest of margins. This is thanks in no small part to Catherine’s pluck and awareness, which up until then have been neglected, another of Corman’s most integral themes. The ending is technically happy as the good guys stumble away unharmed, and yet Corman saves up one of the most coldly ironic final shots in horror film history, as Catherine, Francis, and Maximillian leave the dungeon. “No-one shall enter this room again,” Catherine vows, only for Corman to veer his camera back to the iron maiden from which the gagged Elizabeth stares in silent mortification, doomed to the nastiest possible punishment for her crime. The ritualistic final quote direct from Poe that ends the film ironically fills in a description of the very sound Elizabeth can’t make: the primal scream of purgative fear.

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